In Gaza, Hamas levels an ancient treasure

Junaid Sorosh-Wali, right, a UNESCO official, inspects the remains of a mosaic at St. Hilarion monastery, a site of early Christianity, in Nusseirat, central Gaza Strip. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)
Updated 06 October 2017
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In Gaza, Hamas levels an ancient treasure

TEL ES-SAKAN, Gaza Strip: Palestinian and French archaeologists began excavating Gaza's earliest archaeological site nearly 20 years ago, unearthing what they believe is a rare 4,500-year-old Bronze Age settlement.
But over protests that grew recently, Gaza's Hamas rulers have systematically destroyed the work since seizing power a decade ago, allowing the flattening of this hill on the southern tip of Gaza City to make way for construction projects, and later military bases. In its newest project, Hamas-supported bulldozers are flattening the last remnants of excavation.
"There is a clear destruction of a very important archaeological site," said Palestinian archaeology and history professor Mouin Sadeq, who led three excavations at the site along with French archaeologist Pierre de Miroschedji after its accidental discovery in 1998. "I don't know why the destruction of the site was approved."
Tel Es-Sakan (hill of ash) was the largest Canaanite city between Palestine and Egypt, according to Sadeq. It was named after the great amount of ash found during the excavations, which suggests the settlement was burnt either naturally or in a war.
Archaeologists found the 25-acre hill to be hiding a fortified settlement built centuries before pharaonic rule in Egypt, and 1,000 years before the pyramids. But the excavations stopped in 2002 due to security concerns.
When calls on Hamas to stop the recent flattening intensified last month, the nearest available expert to gain access to Gaza was Jean-Baptiste Humbert, a Jerusalem-based archaeologist at the Ecole Biblique and who had excavated other sites in Gaza.
"Today the complete southern facade of the Tel is erased," said Humbert. In previous years, faces and ramparts on other sides were also destroyed. "Now it is destroyed all around," he said.
It's among the earliest sites indicating the emergence of the "urban society" concept in the Near East, when communities were transforming from farming villages around 4,000 BC, and it was on trade routes between Egypt and the Levant, according to Humbert.
Humbert shared an aerial photo from 2000 showing patterns of walls from atop the mound. The area "was the first city of Palestine to have a city wall," he said. Now, "the field work you see in the photo is totally destroyed."
Gaza is home to numerous ancient treasures, but politics have long complicated archaeological work.
The French excavations stopped in 2002 because of a Palestinian uprising in which protesters violently clashed with Israeli troops around the nearby Netzarim settlement. Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005. But Hamas, shunned by the West as a terrorist group, won elections and eventually drove out the Western-backed Palestinian Authority in 2007. The excavations never resumed.
Unlike more extreme Islamic groups, Hamas has not deliberately destroyed antiquities for ideological reasons.
But with little open space in Gaza, a fast-growing population and an economy stifled by Israeli and Egyptian blockades, Hamas officials say they have no choice but to develop the area, making archaeology a low priority.
But the group has also seized ancient sites to build military training camps, including the 3,000-year-old Anthedon Harbor, parts of which were bulldozed in 2013.
In 2009 and 2012, the expansion of universities destroyed the western and northern facades of Tel El-Sakan. People displaced during three wars between Hamas and Israel set up temporary dwellings on the eastern side.
The southern front remained, but Hamas says it needs the land to compensate some of its senior employees, who have only received partial salaries from the cash-strapped group.
When the bulldozer work started in early August, the Hamas-run Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities appealed for help. Humbert rushed to Gaza, and with the help of colleagues from Gaza's Islamic University, he succeeded in stopping the work for two weeks while the ministry and Hamas' Land Authority worked to settle the dispute.
Jamal Abu Rida, the ministry's director of antiquities, said Tel Es-Sakan is a protected archaeological site, but that his ministry could not stop the more powerful Land Authority from destroying another 1.2 hectares (three acres).
The work resumed last week. Bulldozers loaded a truck with soil that contained fragments of jars. When the workers saw Associated Press cameras, they quickly left the scene.
Abu Rida said they recovered an early Bronze Age jar from the site during the most recent leveling. Fadel al-Outul a Gaza archaeologist, salvaged fragments that he used to reassemble two thirds of another jar. He also found a flint knife blade.
Junaid Sorosh-Wali, an official with the U.N. cultural agency UNESCO, inspected the damage at the site Tuesday after the bulldozers left.
What happened was "disastrous for the archaeology and cultural heritage in Palestine," he said. He said UNESCO had raised concerns with "the relevant authorities."
Amateur videos showed ramparts crumbling under the bulldozer's treads. The rampart of the southern facade was also uncovered and is slated for destruction.
Dozens of ancient sites have been found in Gaza, and excavations have revealed temples, monasteries, palaces, churches and mosques and mosaics. But most of the sites have been lost to urban sprawl and looting. UNESCO is struggling to preserve some of remaining ones.
In 2016, the remains of a Byzantine church were discovered in Gaza, but authorities are believed to have destroyed them. And in 2014, a rare Apollo statue went missing and is believed to be held by a militant group.
At St. Hilarion monastery in the central Gaza Strip, which spans from the late Roman Empire to the Islamic Umayyad period, a breach in the fence suggested looters were trying to get in. Private construction is taking place next door. Someone recently dumped brick debris in the site from over the fence.
The birthplace one of the 4th century founders of Christian monasticism still has the clear remnants of a baptism hall, a church and an atrium.
Sorosh-Wali, the UNESCO official, said it is among around a dozen locations in the West Bank and Gaza that the Palestinian Authority wants to be listed as a UNESCO "world heritage" sites.


Migrants in Lebanon seek to break stereotypes with new radio show

Updated 18 July 2018
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Migrants in Lebanon seek to break stereotypes with new radio show

  • Migrant domestic workers can be treated like they are invisible, and this radio show can change the way they are perceived by illustrating and highlighting the multi-faceted dimensions of their identities and lives
  • Projects like the Lebanese radio program could be used across the region to change attitudes toward migrants

BEIRUT: Since arriving in Lebanon, Sudanese migrant worker Abdallah Afandi has been turned away from beach resorts, mistaken for a cleaner and prevented from renting an apartment — all because of the color of his skin.
Now he is hoping to challenge the “racism and prejudice” he says he has encountered by taking part in Lebanon’s first radio show to be hosted and produced by migrants from countries such as Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia and the Philippines.
The aim is to give Lebanese people a greater understanding about where migrants come from to create the tolerance and respect that local migrant rights groups say is lacking.
“Many Lebanese see Sudanese only as cleaners and workers — we want them to see us in a different way,” Afandi told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The 27-year-old came to Lebanon seven years ago when he no longer felt safe in his home of Darfur in western Sudan, where conflict had raged since 2003.
He now earns a living preparing food in a restaurant and doing maintenance work in a Beirut residential building.
Afandi’s episode is one of a series airing on Voice of Lebanon, a popular independent radio station, featuring migrants talking about their own food and culture as well as the issues they face in Lebanon.
In it, he and two other Sudanese migrants discuss their country’s pyramids and interview Sudan’s ambassador to Lebanon on migrant rights.
“I want to use my voice so that people in Lebanon understand where I come from, my culture, music, food — so they will look beyond what I do for a living, and the color of my skin,” he said.
KAFALA
Migrant workers in Lebanon and much of the Middle East work under the kafala sponsorship system, which binds them to one employer.
Rights groups have blamed the system for abuse of migrant workers and say it leaves them vulnerable to exploitation by denying them the ability to travel or change jobs.
Race is also a factor — last month two Kenyan women migrant workers suffered an attack that Lebanon’s justice minister condemned as “shocking” and “abhorrently racist” after footage of them being beaten was circulated on social media.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) said projects like the Lebanese radio program could be used across the region to change attitudes toward migrants.
“This radio show is a brilliant example to be replicated across the region, and to bring attention to stories ‘by migrants’,” said spokeswoman Farah Sater Ferraton.

’NOT FOREIGN’
The show — whose name “Msh gharib” means “not foreign” in Arabic — has been in the works since 2017 and was created by the Anti-Racism Movement, a local non-government organization, with the help of migrants from the community center it runs.
“The title of the show really communicates its purpose — migrants are not ‘the other’. Their voices and stories shouldn’t be ‘foreign’ to Lebanese,” said Laure Makarem, spokeswoman for the center.
“Migrant domestic workers can be treated like they are invisible, and this radio show can change the way they are perceived by illustrating and highlighting the multi-faceted dimensions of their identities and lives.”
The 15 episodes will air in the next few months and are mainly in Arabic, with small sections in the hosts’ native language — particularly when talking about their rights in Lebanon.
Tarikwa Bekele, a 33-year-old domestic worker, is working on one episode with fellow Ethiopians, who make up the biggest migrant group in Lebanon at more than 100,000 people.
They are planning to talk about Ethiopian traditions, famous athletes and a famous model in the hope of showing Lebanese that Ethiopians are not “just working in houses and cleaning bathrooms,” said Bekele.
“There are so many Ethiopians working in Lebanon,” said Bekele. “Once they can see that we are like them — like any other country — I think they will treat us better. Treat us with respect.”

Funding for this story was supported by a fellowship run by the International Labour Organization and the Ethical Journalism Network.